What are Fine Motor Skills? Fine Motor Skills Checklist

What are fine motor skills?  They are the small co-ordinated movements of the hands and fingers that make us as human beings special.  In some instances they are also called hand skills.  The co-ordinated small muscle movements enable the hands to perform refined manipulative tasks that foster independence, and enable us to become independent, functional beings.

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From baby hands to writing hands

Watching fine motor skills develop is one of the miraculous events of early childhood.  Our babies are born with not much more than a grasp reflex.  This reflex is activated when you place your finger into a baby’s hand and the hand automatically closes around it and holds on.  The release is not active, nor is it conscious – it is involuntary.  Your baby may hold something in their hands, only to randomly drop it at some point.  Compare this to the finely tuned sequence of fine motor movements that come together to tie a shoelace.

Over the first year of life, fine motor development control develops from random swipes of the arm with movements from the shoulder.  Controlled movement then slowly moves down towards the hands.

Crawling helps develop the small muscles in the hands

This progression of the development of control from the shoulder down to the hands is one of the reasons why crawling is so beneficial.  The input received through the hands while crawling, promotes the development of the small muscles of the hands, which contribute to their amazing refined skill.  It is not only the forward crawling that is important.  Each time your baby moves over their hands from the 4-point crawling position into sitting, they are activating the small muscles of the hand.

Fine motor skills development

I have early yet vivid memories of my mother saying while we were out shopping: "look with your eyes and not with your hands."  While a most valuable social skill was not to pick up and fiddle with whatever took my fancy, I do believe that we "look" with our hands.  Our ability to manipulate objects in a refined manner works together with our touch receptors.  This provides us with information about the objects we hold.  And it is this refined manipulation that fine motor skills are made of.

We develop fine motor skills through exposure, opportunity and repetition.  In just the same way we want to give our children a balanced diet on a regular basis, they need a regular balanced fine motor diet.  We know that too much sugar, too much fast food and too many fizzy drinks are not good for our children.  We try to regulate their intake of these sugary delights that our children would love to consume all day.

Smartphones steal from fine motor skills development

Smartphones and tablets are the fizzy drinks, fast food and sugar that are bad for our fine motor and hand skills.  In the same way that the occasional cupcake and splurge at a birthday party are not going to cause our children to suffer irreparable damage or precipitate childhood obesity, limited exposure to technology is not going to severely impact fine motor skills development.  But its consumption does need to be monitored and managed – just as we carefully manage our children's sugar intake.

Too much time spent with technology steals from the time and opportunity for exposure, repetition and mastery.  The amazing manipulative abilities of the hands are not challenged nor developed through time on smart phones and tablets.  Swiping and pointing simply does not develop the tiny in-hand muscles that we need for fine motor skills.  Too much time on these devices does not allow for enough time for the repetition required to develop the fine motor manipulatory skills our children need by the time they enter Grade 1.  To counteract the time stolen by technology, we need to include specific and intentional fine motor skills activities.

Grip strength is declining

A 2016 study of 20 plus aged adults, showed a significant deterioration in grip strength when compared to a similar group in 1983.  By choosing specific activities such as the play dough press, we can swim against the tide of weak underdeveloped hands of the techno age.  Here at The Happy Handwriter we start from the foundations and work up.  We promote the development of the foundational fine motor skills.  No piece that I write on fine motor skills would be complete without a mention of the critical importance of cutting – one of the essential foundational fine motor skills we have.   We need to set our children up with the fine motor base needed to go on to develop the pre-handwriting lines and strokes and go on to master one of the complex and critical hand skills: handwriting.

What are fine motor skills needed for Grade 1?

It doesn’t matter what the skill is, we don’t want our child to be the one only one who can’t do it.  We don’t want them to feel left out.  And we don’t want them to feel lesser.  The brutal honesty of kids can leave our children feeling completely demoralised if they are, for example, the only one who can’t write their name.

I am not a fan of putting ages to stages.  Early development, and that includes fine motor development, happens on a continuum.  Each child is somewhere on the path to being able to tie their shoelaces, and somewhere on the path to being able to draw recognisable pictures.

That being said, Grade 1 is a significant milestone and, by then, our children need to have certain skills in place to be able to happily and successfully manage the demands of the day.  They are not going to be endearing themselves to the teacher if they aren’t able to manage the zip on their back pack and are always needing help to access their lunch.

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Grade 1 Fine Motor Checklist

Your child will have developed many of these fine motor skills way before Grade 1, but there may be the odd one that has slipped through the cracks.  Knowing what is expected is going to help you to prepare your child for the fine motor skill demands of Grade 1.  I cannot stress enough that this is a guide.  Please don’t become a slave to the list – your child is going to manage just fine at school if they can’t spread butter on their bread!  It is usually best master a few skills properly, than to broadly cover everything and all you end up doing is making yourself worried that your child hasn’t mastered the skill, and leaving your child feeling badly as well.

Fine Motor Skills for Grade 1

  1. Pointing, finger isolation, and the pincer grasp
  2. Turning the pages of a book
  3. Posting and stacking
  4. Play dough
  5. Opening and closing containers and unscrewing lids
  6. Established hand preference
  7. Pencil Grip and mastering writing utensils
  8. Gluing and pasting
  9. Zippers
  10. Threading and lacing
  11. Construction and manipulative toys
  12. Cutting
  13. Shoelaces
  14. Self-care skills: brushing teeth and hair, managing hair, dressing, and toileting
  15. Managing fork and spoon
  16. Spreading with a knife, cutting soft food, and beginning to use knife and fork together
  17. Able to draw vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, vertical and diagonal crosses
  18. Able to draw shapes
  19. Draws recognizable pictures
  20. Writes name
  21. Basic letter and number formation
  22. Able to manage a computer mouse

Opening and closing containers and unscrewing lids
For the most part your child will probably have mastered these skills by now.  But, on a practical level, do be sure to check lunch boxes and water bottles ahead of time.  We have all rushed out the day before school starts to quickly get a lunch box and grabbed the last one left on the shelf, only to find out after the fact, that it is one of those awful containers that are impossible to open!

Developed a preferred hand
The refinement of handedness is a developing skill.  I am of a firm believer that by Grade 1 our children need to have established hand preference, often known as hand dominance.  They cannot enter an environment that requires them to learn to write when they don’t know which hand they are using and switch between the two.  Being so-called “ambidextrous” is not a benefit.  Our children need one well-developed and specialised hand.  Should your child’s hand preference not have emerged by Grade R, please do consult an occupational therapist.

Mastering zippers
There are zippers on back packs and pencil bags and our children need to be able to manage them independently.  Backward chaining is a technique that occupational therapists use to help children master motor tasks.  It involves breaking the tasks down into the stages, and can be applied to zippers and any other sequential motor task.  Start with the last step of the task and ensure your child can be successful with that. Then, progress to the second last step and so on.

  1. Teaching zippers on pencil bags using backward chaining
    Make sure all the contents are inside the pencil bag. It is not helpful if your child is struggling, for the pencil bag to be stuffed to capacity. There has to be ample spare room for them to manipulate the bag and get the zip closed.
  2. Pull the sides of the bag together so the two sides of the zip meet.
  3. Hold the one end of the bag with the helping hand and the zipper tab with the working hand.
  4. Pull the zip closed.

Backward changing would start with your child mastering the last step.  Everything would be ready for them and then they would need only to pull the zip. Once they had mastered that, they would have to do step 3, then 2 and so on.  A final step would be to stuff the pencil bag so it was too full (just like I said you shouldn’t!) and make sure your child could manage that – that would give them the skills if something went wrong and for example, if the ruler got stuck outside the pencil bag.

Cutting Skills
This is a functional skill you child will need in Grade 1 but it is also one of my favourite activities for developing the prewriting muscles. Be sure your child has a lot of exposure to cutting activities and that they have mastered, and are proficient, in this skill.

Mastering shoelaces
There are many traditional methods to teach shoelaces. Occupational therapist, Emma Hubbard, takes you through some options.

Drawing recognizable pictures
Not everyone needs to be an artist. Your child doesn’t need to be able to reproduce beautiful masterpieces.  But they do need to be able to draw basic pictures.  Pictures are made up of shapes put together in different ways.  Make sure your child has mastered their shape drawing.  If this is shaky, it will be a really worthwhile investment to spend some time here.

Being able to write their name
If your child has yet to master writing their name, please do pop over here and get your name grid and get stuck in! This is an important one to have in place for school.

If your child is struggling with many of these skills, narrow down the list to the ones that seem most important. If using a knife and fork together for cutting soft foods is on the list, it is probably not going to affect their ability to have a happy school day.  Rather let that one go and focus on one that is more important like being able to write their name.  Deal with the knife and fork later.

If your child is on their way to Grade 1 and many of these skills on the list are a challenge, it may be wise to consult an occupational therapist for some support.

fine motor skills activities, fine motor skills checklist, fine motor skills development, what are fine motor skills

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Patty Bunce, an experienced occupational therapist, also weighs in on the importance of fine motor skills development.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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